Facing student learning results that were consistently unacceptable, Principal Darcie Aungst and her staff at James Condon Elementary School decided that they were trying to do too many things, and were not getting good at any of them, because they were spread too thin. The leadership team led the staff in a protocol designed to use learning data to identify an instructional focus to address the most central and pressing student needs. In the interview, Principal Aungst refers to the “kid-friendly” version of this focus, “Listen and Read to Know, Speak and Write to Show.” In the third and final part of this interview, Principal Aungst describes the celebrations and challenges of their journey.
Could you share the challenges you and your team considered when choosing evidence-based instructional practices, and how the number of English Language Learners shaped your decisions?
Yes, absolutely. I was thinking that the reason we picked accountable talk and academic discourse is because so many of our students were struggling. I will never forget the number – 33 percent of my school was a Level One English Learner. It was a strange dynamic. Since then, I have begged the district to keep the students with us from kindergarten through grade five. The thing that really worked with our SILT, and then again in PD, was that I was really honest about the fact that I needed to learn a lot about the best approaches to accelerating English acquisition for ELL’s. I had real empathy for the teachers. I remember saying, “You must be so worried and afraid of failure and what to do when a student walks in with not even enough English to say, “Hello, how are you?” Right? That must be what you think about during guided reading time. This must be what you consider during small group instruction.” In other words, we had to focus on this subgroup.
And so, I said, “We need to find out together what the best practices are.” I think when the leader has empathy for what’s going on, they’re so open to say, “Yes, we need help.” As a leader, you have to intentionally create that. Because otherwise, I think that’s where the defensive reactions like, “It’s the kids,” or “What am I supposed to do?” or “They don’t speak any English,” creep in.
So, together we worked a lot on explicit teaching and listening for things. We focused on using read-alouds. We helped students find details in the text. Then the speaking came with accountable talk and academic discourse. This led to the development of our schoolwide instructional focus is, “Listen and Read to Know, Speak and Write to Show.”
We learned speaking is not that different from writing. We really made those connections and committed to, “If we spend time, as scary as it is, developing listening and speaking, then the reading and writing will come.” There just has to be so much less teacher talk and less direct instruction and more time for kids to listen and speak.